Are you ever worried about rocking the proverbial boat? Do you find yourself feeling unsatisfied or resentful in your relationship because you’re worried that voicing your needs will lead to conflict and instead damage the relationship more? You’re not alone. Conflict avoidance can feel like the right choice to protect your relationship. But in the long run, avoiding confrontation and conflict can actually erode trust and connection – it often leaves both partners feeling alone and unheard.
What Causes Conflict Avoidance
Patterns of conflict avoidance often start as important coping strategies. These coping strategies develop to ease anxiety and overwhelm in important relationships where an adult or child felt controlled, dismissed, or rejected when they were trying to reach out for comfort, care, and connection around their most sensitive emotions. This is part of an anxious attachment style. Anxious attachment style can be seen in individuals who learned in childhood that it’s easier to regulate their anxiety and other emotions on their own than to try to get their needs met from someone who is unavailable, unresponsive, hypercritical, or derisive.
These individuals learned that it was much easier to avoid conflict and neglect their needs than to upset the most important people around them and risk the relationship unraveling. They learned they couldn’t trust others to have positive, productive reactions to them voicing their needs or thoughts and so they should always expect negative outcomes and just avoid it all together. This avoidance behavior may look like:
- People pleasing or always going along with the leader’s or majority’s opinion
- Stonewalling or denying a problem even exists
- Changing the subject or deliberately exiting conversations
- Over-apologizing and taking responsibility for things you didn’t do
- Bottling and hiding your resentment until you lash out
How Conflict Avoidance Can Affect Your Relationship
Someone with an anxious attachment style may create a narrative around how to find security and calm in relationships, “People don’t really care about my needs. If I don’t let anyone in, I can’t be rejected. I’m fine on my own and can figure out my own needs no matter what’s going on in my relationship.”
In her book Rising Strong, Brené Brown explains that when something hard or painful happens, our brains make up all kinds of stories to make sense of what happened and protect us from it ever happening again. But when we have incomplete or biased data from particularly negative experiences, we fill in the gaps ourselves with our anxious brain’s best guesses. This is how we end up with stories like, “My partner must not really care about me if they’re treating me this way” or “It’s clear my partner only thinks about themself. I’m not important to them” or “My partner is obviously judging me for ______. They don’t care about why I’m really upset.”
If you’re telling yourself a story about how your partner doesn’t really care about you or your internal experience, avoiding confronting them about your unmet needs is a great way to protect yourself in the moment. But it can also lead to loneliness, low self-esteem, lack of trust, built up resentment and anxiety, or just numbness and feelings of disconnection from your partner as well as yourself and your true needs.
So how do you break this cycle of withdrawing and avoiding conflict? Identify the story you’ve been telling yourself, begin to challenge that story, and lean into healthy conflict.
3 Steps to Overcome Conflict Avoidance
1) Identify your story
When we’re feeling unsafe or insecure, like during or right after a fight/trigger with your partner, we often tell ourselves these anxiety-ridden stories so quickly that we’re not even aware we’re doing it. The key is to slow down, tune into what’s happening in your body, and identify the emotions that are coming up for you. This will give you the space to be curious about the story you’re telling yourself about what just happened.
Here are some good questions you can ask yourself:
- What emotion are you feeling the strongest right now in response to the trigger?
- Is there a core emotion underneath the surface emotion? (re: fear, hurt, shame underneath your anger)
- What’s the worst part about what just happened for you? Be specific about the part of the trigger that’s most upsetting to you.
- Why do you think this specific feeling or thought is coming up for you now?
- When have there been other times that you’ve felt this same way?
- What message or story did the trigger and emotion send you about yourself, your partner, or your relationship/connection?
I’m feeling angry and hurt/ashamed that my partner made another comment about the laundry piling up. The worst part was that they didn’t acknowledge any of the other things I’ve accomplished and done well. This reminded me of times when my mom would criticize me for the smallest mistake and I felt like I was never enough. She never cared about how she made me feel. The story I’m telling myself is that my partner doesn’t think I’m enough for them, either. They don’t care about how their comment made me feel or they wouldn’t have said it.
Next, ask yourself what this feeling is telling you about what you’re missing from your partner. You can then identify what you need from your partner to feel more secure or connected moving forward.
I’m really longing for my partner to validate how busy I’ve been and how much I’ve accomplished even if I haven’t gotten to everything. This would show me that they value me exactly the way I am, that I am enough, and that they do care how they make me feel.
2) Rewrite a new story around healthy conflict
If you’re often protecting yourself by avoiding any kind of conflict, you’ll never have the opportunity to collect evidence that shows you you might not be in as much danger as you’ve always believed. Conflict can actually promote healthy ways to build understanding, empathy, connection, and attunement with your partner. During healthy, productive conflict, both partners are focused on staying calm, curious, and connected as they vulnerably share their concerns, fears, frustrations, and needs with each other. Conflict aversion is out, making way for healthy conflict where each partner has the goal of getting to know each other better and not just getting their way.
What would it mean for you and your relationship if you worked to rewrite your conflict with a healthy and understanding perspective? It could sound something like, “My needs are important and matter in my relationship. I want to share my needs calmly with vulnerability so my partner has the opportunity to respond with comfort, compassion, and understanding.
3) Lean in to healthy conflict
Of course, unlearning years of conflict-avoidant patterns is not exactly as simple as creating a new narrative and diving right in. You’ve most likely collected mountains of evidence that prove avoiding conflict is the only option to maintain peace or soothe your anxiety in your relationship. The process of leaning into healthy conflict will give you the opportunity to gain new evidence that you have more options than you think and learn that through conflict you can actually get more of your needs met and feel more secure in your relationship.
It’s important to feel prepared as you engage in conflict. Self-preparation is key to easing anxiety and ultimately reduces conflict avoidance. Here are some quick tips as you take this next step:
- When you feel triggered and begin to tell yourself those anxious stories, focus on helping your partner understand what you’re feeling (instead of telling them what they’ve done wrong). The goal is to learn something new about each other instead of assigning blame.
- If you’re worried about your partner getting defensive, it can be helpful to practice curiosity. Allow time and space for your partner to share their experience and the stories they may be telling themselves; they need to feel heard and understood, too. Keep asking curious, non-judgmental questions until you reach genuine understanding.
- Validate whatever you feel you can honestly validate. When your partner feels secure and validated, they are more likely to offer you the same responsiveness. Find something that makes sense to you or that you can empathize with. And then ask your partner to do the same for you.
- When you bring in your own experience to the conversation, be careful not to use “but…” or any other language that invalidates your partner’s experience in a similar way. Try “and…” instead.
- Stay focused on your goal for the conversation and avoid getting pulled down unproductive rabbit holes, like making unhelpful or irrelevant references to the past.
- After there is mutual understanding about each person’s experience, work to direct the conversation towards your and your partner’s needs. Share with them that because of the story you were telling yourself, you could use more of ________ (reassurance, validation, appreciation, gentleness, understanding, praise, help, actions, etc.).
Need a little more help?
We know that leaning into conflict is not easy, especially because many developed this coping strategy for valid reasons when you didn’t feel safe. We believe that you deserve the opportunity however to build healthier ways of navigating conflict that leave you feeling more secure, satisfied, happy, and connected to your partner.
We can help you understand and unpack the stories you’ve written around relationship conflict. Our therapists are here to help you rewrite these long-held narratives and support you to take new steps toward healthy conflict. We offer both couples and individual counseling that can help you navigate whatever struggles you’re facing. Contact In Session Psych or Connect Couples Therapy to get started. We offer virtual and in-person sessions.